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U.S. says Obama open to meeting with Iran's Rouhani

Hassan Rohani gestures to the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost
Hassan Rohani gestures to the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House said on Thursday it was possible that President Barack Obama would meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York next week if Tehran signaled it was serious about giving up its nuclear program.

Obama and Rouhani will be in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, and speculation has grown that the two leaders might have an encounter of some type.

White House spokesman Jay Carney has deflected questions all week about whether the two leaders would meet during the U.N. gathering. On Thursday, he acknowledged a change in tone between Iran and the West since Rouhani took office and said a meeting was possible, though one was not scheduled.

"It's possible, but it has always been possible," Carney said. "The extended hand has been there from the moment the president was sworn in."

When Obama first ran for president in 2008, he said he would hold direct negotiations with Iran under certain conditions. Carney said Obama still holds that position.

Rouhani said in a television interview broadcast on Thursday that his country did not seek war. He said Iran would never develop nuclear weapons and that he had complete authority to negotiate with Western powers.

Carney told reporters that Rouhani delivered some positive-sounding rhetoric in an NBC News interview but "actions are more important than words."

The United States and its western allies believe Iran is working towards developing a nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at power production.

Carney reiterated that Obama would be willing to have bilateral negotiations provided the Iranians were serious about addressing the international community's insistence that Tehran give up its nuclear weapons program.

"That is the position we hold today," Carney said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason; Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)

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